It's taken me about 17 years, but I have recently discovered a useful parenting trick.
The trick is this: When directing children, don't always act on your first impulse. Otherwise you end up parenting like a dog handler: "no," "fetch," "good boy," "stay," "do your homework," "take a bath," "go to bed."
One night this week, I pulled into the driveway and immediately smelled smoke coming from the back of the house. When I turned the corner, our 12-year-old son was on his knees burning notebook paper on the patio.
"Mommy said I could do this," he said, preemptively. "I'm burning some of my math homework on the last day of school. It's kind of a middle-school tradition."
"Oh," I stammered, and continued taking groceries inside.
After I got the milk and ice cream put away, I went back outside to check on our little pyromaniac. I could already feel the Daddy voice building a sentence in my brain. I started to say, "OK, Son, you've had your fun. Now, let's clean up and come inside."
But, instead, I didn't say a word. I just sat down beside him, put my chin in my hands, and watched.
"I want to tell you something," I said.
"What is it?" he asked, never looking my way but holding the grill lighter to a fresh piece of homework.
"I want to tell you that you are a great kid and that you always make people around you feel better," I said. "I'm proud you are my son, and I love you very much."
"Thanks," he said, quietly, the flame reflected in his eyes. "I love you, too."
"So does this make you feel good," I said, gesturing to the smoldering paper pile.
"This makes me feel incredible," he said.
"Why? Do you hate math?" I asked.
"No, I have like a 98 in math," he said. "This just makes me feel like the school year is really over."
"You know you can't burn stuff when Mom and Dad aren't home," I said, slipping into Daddy mode.
"I know. I'm not an idiot," he said.
When talking deeply with boys, it's important to catch them at the right moment. This was the right moment.
"Why don't you take a picture on your phone?" I said as he threw his whole math notebook on top of the flame.
"Great idea," he said, fishing his iPhone from the pocket of his athletic shorts as the flames shot higher.
I imagined him sharing the photo on a group text and copycat paper piles going up in smoke all around the neighborhood.
Over the next 20 minutes, we talked about middle-school friends, how to make new ones and keep old ones. We talked about soccer and how it teaches a delicate balance between work and fun. He told me he might make the Honor Roll at school.
By now, the last page of his math homework book was turning to ashes.
"Go get a shovel and put all these ashes in a bucket," I said.
"OK," he said running off to the garage. He made short work of the ash pile and then doused the embers with a tall glass of water for good measure.
"Thanks for letting me do that," he said, still amazed that I had let him essentially play with fire for 30 minutes.
"Good talk," I said, holding up my right hand to invite a high five.
Boys and their dads don't talk this way every night, nor should they.
The soul of a boy is a fragile thing that opens up only in its season, like a bedroom window on a summer night.
If father and son are lucky, anxiety floats away on the cool breeze of love.
And oh, how I love this boy.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645.